Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions,” having its Central Indiana premiere courtesy of American Lives Theatre at Indy Fringe through January 30, centers on a boarding school admissions head Sherri (Bridget Haight). With good, liberal heart, she’s trying to get the non-white student population up to 20% having succeeded, over her career, of getting it up to 18% from dismal single digits.
It’s a given that her son (Matthew Conwell) will be accepted at Yale. Of course he will. He’s got grades, extracurriculars, etc.
But things get complicated.
— It is common in theater to see plays that are marketed as being about controversial issues but, in the end, clearly come down on the side of what the audience seems to want to hear. In other words, the members of the audience have the benefit of feeling challenged while still having their preconceptions and assumptions left unchallenged. This is not one of those plays.
— “Admissions” tees up beautifully. In the opening scene, Sherri tries to get an older, “I don’t see color” staff member Roberta (Suzanne Fleenor) to understand why featuring only a handful of people of color in school’s marketing materials is problematic. This leads into a craftily, comedically, and cringe-inducingly written and performed conversation about how to try to remedy that. (Side note: I know Roberta. I’ve worked with a Roberta. Roberta is sincere. And can be infuriating.) Not only does this opening, present vivid characters in conflict, it also creates expectations that it will soon undermine. Clearly, a liberal theater audience will be rooting for Sherri throughout the play, right?
–I’m trying to think of other recent productions that challenged audiences in a similar way and my mind goes back to the Phoenix Theatre’s production of Seth Rozin’s play “Human Rites,” which dealt with female circumcision in Africa. Here, as in that play, a seemingly clear-cut issue is grayed by giving strong voice to multiple sides of an issue — while never forgetting that it’s a play and not a lecture.
— Every character in this play is trying to do the right thing. And characters who try to do the right thing when it becomes less clear what the right thing actually is can be the most interesting in theater.
— In a review of a production of “Admissions” in another city, a critic described Sherri “fluttery.” I’m so glad, in American Lives Theatre’s production, Haight wasn’t directed to play Sherri that way.
— Other arts journalists have asked — in a judgmental way — if Harmon is endorsing everything said in a passionate, lengthy screed by the frustrated son. Granted, it’s a doozy of a scene, filled with rage and passionate arguments. And it’s actually something I admired most about the piece — and the production. It challenged the audience by allowing a character to voice uncomfortable and challenging ideas that are shared by many, whether admitted publicly or not. It’s easy to build a defense based on demonizing the opposition and pointing to the weakest arguments of your opponent. It’s harder to wrestle with nuances. Easy to theorize. Harder to apply those theories to real life people and circumstances. And, no, I don’t see Harmon as endorsing the views expressed in the son’s tirade.
— One character in the play experiences a leap that may ring false to some. I bought it.
— It disturbs me that the same people who complain about quotas and race-based admissions issues have no trouble with legacy based and big donor-based admissions. Thanks for bringing that up.
— Among other reasons, American Lives Theatre continues to impress me with its wise use of space. So often small theater companies require leaps of imagination on the part of audiences. This set works.
— I still miss printed programs. Even one-sheet programs. I like to have a printed record of what I’ve seen.
— Yes, it gives one pause when considering that a play that wrestles with issues of race has an entirely white cast of characters and was penned by a white playwright. Sara Holdren, writing for Vulture, went as far as to conclude her review by saying, “If you’re a white person who genuinely believes white people ought to shut up for a while, then take your own advice.”
— I respect that opinion. And I’m still primarily in a listening mode on this issue. Now, though, my thinking is that when seeing a strong, entertaining, assumption-challenging play get produced so well in a market hurting for strong, entertaining, assumption-challenging plays, it’s tough not to celebrate it.
— And hope that it can open the door and help build an audience for a more diverse range of strong, entertaining, assumption-challenging plays.
— Highly recommended.